I held my breath as the call came from Ted at Maritime. “Be at the hangar at 8:30am for a probable departure at 9.” We arrived at 8:20am and paced the waiting room for confirmation from Gerry. It was still not guaranteed until he had check the beach runway. We knew that this could be our last chance to get to the island and we waited on pins and needles, finally we got the green light! It seemed surreal to at last be taxiing down the runway but this time it was really happening. We climbed slowly up over Halifax and flew over the northern coast of Nova Scotia and then out into the Atlantic. It was an hour and a half flight to our destination and we had requested extra flying minutes (at $20/minute) to circumnavigate the island before landing.
Even though I had seen aerial photos of Sable it did not prepare me for the spectacular sight ahead. The island is a long crescent shape with beautiful white sandy beaches, lush green vegetation covering much of the dunes and tropical looking turquoise waters surrounding it all. As we toured the coastline we could see the small bands of horses scattered throughout and the hundreds of grey and harbour seals lining the beaches. Just off shore the outline of a large ship was visible just below the surface of the water, and this was the wreck of the ship ‘Alfonse’ occurring in 1946. Except for the fact that there were no trees, it looked like an island paradise!
Our landing strip was a wide stretch of beach about 10 km from main station. Gerry had harrowed the strip to take out any ruts and had placed yellow floats along the edge. He was waiting in his truck with lights flashing and a windsock billowing from the antenna. The landing was short and smooth and as we stepped out onto the sand three brown horses came trotting over the dunes and onto the landing area, as though they were a welcoming committee. They stopped and posed for a few photos and then we loaded up our gear and headed for home base. We drove along the beach and then passed a large shallow lake with harbour seals basking in the sun. This was Lake Wallace, but the Sable staff had dubbed it ‘ the spa’. In past centuries the lake had been the centre of a thriving community. As we neared the current main station a set of windmills loomed before us. Approximately 30% of the islands power comes from wind energy. Large solar panels surrounded the buildings and these were solely to heat all of the hot water necessary to the tiny village. Diesel generators provided the rest of the power. Water was ample, as a large lenticular aquifer existed just below the surface of the island, which was dotted all over with lakes and ponds. Gerry gave us brief instructions on approaching seals and rules about being around the horses. Like any protected wild creature, it was ok to let them approach you but you were not supposed to feed or touch them in any way.
Our accomodation was a large guest house which also housed two of the Sable Island mainentance crew that were in on a 3 month work period. It seemed like a palace compared to last week at MSVU. We each had our own spacious room, a large kitchen and dining area, pool table and TV room, laundry facilities, satellite internet and a phone. We hurried to organize our gear, knowing that a clear sunny day was a rarity on Sable, we wanted to take advantage of every minute. I giggled a little when the station maintenance man told me not to worry, that the horses would not hurt me and not to be scared because they were curious and might come very close but they were not ‘carnivores’. I figured after the last two weeks in Katmai with the bears I could probably handle it.
The four of us headed out towards the ponds to the west. We had no idea how close the horses would be or how easy to approach. Much to our surprise and delight we came across a small herd about 10 minutes down the trail and they barely looked up as we approached. They were everything I expected and more, with their long shaggy manes and forelocks. For the most part the horses were all in great condition and looked the picture of health. Except for their feet. With no natural terrain to help keep their feet ground down, many of the horses had shockingly long feet some that had curled up and were about 8 inches long. Another large percentage of the horses toed out quite badly due to the flaring of the outside of their hooves.
The foals all looked very straight and correct in their foreleg conformation so I assumed that the foot shape was not genetics but simply the result of no natural means of wearing down hoof wall. They were small hardy creatures that reminded me of Connemara ponies and other similar pony breeds. Although genetically they were horses, not ponies, they were mostly between 13.2 and 15.1 hands high. They seemed to have nice tight legs despite the condition of their feet, although they were much lighter boned that I would have imagined. I had read many descriptions of these horses that touted them as ‘sturdy’ and I knew that they had once ‘imported’ a draft stallion to improve the stock, so their refinement was a surprise. In fact so much had been written and embellished about their pedigrees that it was hard to know what to expect. I would have to draw my own conclusions.
Their colours range from almost black to light chestnut, a few had white socks, stockings and blazes. Their most striking feature was the long flowing manes which were most prevalent on the stallions and some of the older mares. Many had flaxen manes and tails and even the dark brown horses often had blonde highlights. The first family group we came across was feeding at a small pond. Most of the horses were standing in water over their knees pulling up the rich sedge grass from under the water. This appeared to be a delicacy. The band leader was a chestnut stallion whose mane was so long it was matting together and hung to the ground as he grazed. He had a very grumpy demeanor and carried his head low with his ears back much of the time. You could tell he took his role as protector very seriously. Anytime one of the mares would wander too far out of the group he would quickly herd her back in. The foals in his band were stamped with his genetics being strongly built and a light chestnut in colour. After observing their herd dynamics for a while we decided to head back to main station, refuel with a quick bite to eat and head out for the evening light.
The pilot at Maritime had commented on how light we were travelling and where was our food? When we pointed to our backpacks she raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders. I guess our meal-in-a-bag camping food was not the normal cuisine for guests of Sable Island. However, we were not there to fine dine, and eating would need to be quick and efficient. We quickly downed our reconstituted meals and headed back out. Darren and I chose to investigate the group of Grey Seals on the south beach and Joan and Claudia sought out more horses.
We tried to slowly walk up to the seals but as soon as they saw us they bolted for the water. They were afraid and we were going to have to be more stealthy. On the advice of author/photographer Rosemarie Keough we tried sneaking up on them from behind, which was pretty easy as the sand bars offered us a little protection from view. We also tried climbing up on the dunes and shooting down on them, which they did not mind at all. It was very interesting to see that some of the seals were branded with large numbers. A primitive way of identifying them at one time was to brand the babies. Many of them had huge bite marks and we were later informed that shark predation in these waters kills about 10% of the 200,000 population, and another 10% are lost through disease or deadly encounters with fishing gear. One seal we saw was girthed with a blue rope and probably had been for some time as it was well embedded into its flesh. The seals were so entertaining that we spent the whole evening watching and photographing them. When the light started to wain I caught a few late shot of the sun going down, feeling very satisfied with my first day’s shoot.